In September of 2006 an unholy alliance was formed between my obscene work schedule and my constant travel between Chicago and the East Coast. Its stated goal was to ensure I miss every concert for the following eight months. The consortium has been surprisingly successful. In fact, it's even made it so that I've not even had time to read up on the hip new bands to know whom I'm missing. I've not always been behind the times, in fact, I used to keep up quite well. Two years ago I stumbled upon a crop of bands from the English press, and after finding little support for them stateside, I began the Too Much Rock podcast – first, playing their singles, and later, their imported debut albums. Now, those bands – Arctic Monkeys, Art Brut, and Bloc Party – are all touring in support of their sophomore albums. While Bloc Party's success has placed it in venues I don't frequent, through luck or clean living or Swami Prabhupada's divine grace, I will catch both Art Brut and Arctic Monkey's at suitably small venues within two weeks of each other. I wonder if things have changed.
Katherine and I tucked my visiting parents into bed at 10pm, and then hopped the #50 bus down to Wicker Park. At 10:20 we strolled into an already-packed Subterranean for the long-sold out Art Brut show. A random connection was supposed to have arrived earlier and staked out a spot at the front of the stage, however he was nowhere to be found. Stood up, I worked my way through the tightly packed pit to the third or fourth "row." When I looked back, I saw that Katherine was not able to follow. She shrugged helplessly causing me to curse the untimely host once again. There is nothing like bringing a friend to a show, only to abandon her for hours upon arrival. Oh yes, the life of a high-powered rock and roll critic isn't all room temperature backstage fruit plates and bored interview subjects. No, there is a downside as well.
At 10:30, the three members of Chicago's The Jai-Alai Savant descended the spiral staircase leading to the stage. As is the band's current shtick, each member was dressed entirely in white, with vocalist/guitarist Ralph Darden leading the fashion parade in a worn, but posh, three-piece suit. Immediately Darden looked familiar to me. It wasn't until midway though the next act that I would figure it out – Darden used to co-front a Philadelphia band that I adored called Franklin. Thankfully, that band's progressive impetus on urgency and rhythm has segued perfectly to The Jai-Alai Savant. Having relocated, and now supported by a stable rhythm section consisting of drummer Michael Bravine and bassist Nash Snyder, Darden and his band are touring in support of their soon-to-be released full-length debut.
Much has already been written about The Jai-Alai Savant, and while the band are fairly unique in the indie rock scene today, describing it's sound is relatively simple. Take the dub and reggae progenitors from the 60s, toss in the post-punks who revived it like Public Image Limited or The Police, stir in the recent compatriots such as the aforementioned Franklin and Trenchmouth, and you have the band's sound nailed. This adulation for Trenchmouth was cemented midway through the set when Trenchmouth alumni Damon Locks and Wayne Montana joined The Jai-Alai Servant on stage. Locks backing vocals were appreciated, but his dance moves are not to be missed. Although not much of a dancer, Darden is brilliant frontman. He was delightfully entertaining when preaching his good-time dub gospel to the crowd, and by the time the band ended with a (what else) Trenchmouth cover, the audience was already wound up past the safety point.
During the intermission, a tall, roving waitress kept the bar profitable, the audience members in the pit happy, and their judgement clouded. Inevitably, the amped crowd erupted the moment Art Brut took the stage. Two guys next to me immediately (and certainly on a cue from their synchronised watches) rushed the stage displacing others who had held those stage-side spots for several impatient hours. An overworked bouncer unsuccessfully tried to mediate between these opposing parties, but I still spent a good portion of the show shielding my camera from the vindictive swinging elbows of the recently displaced, or cautiously attempting to shoot around the ever-present, revelous devil horns thrown by the drunken displacers.
While this fascinating sociological dynamic may have been a distraction for those involved in the melee, most of the audience remained focused on Art Brut's unmitigated, anthemic rock. For nearly an hour the pit bounded, churned, and fought in sync with the music. Each downbeat brought the audience's heft downward simultaneously, causing the floor of this upstairs venue to flex and groan nervously. The band's sound is built from that bouncing bass, but defined by powerfully simple buzzing guitars, and shout-a-long choruses that erupt in glorious release. In all the important ways, the band reminds me of The Buzzcocks. Although I expected to hear much of the band's forthcoming album previewed, instead the set included the majority of the band's debut. This is, of course, what the audience had come for – to bask in the songs they knew, performed by a band that is still largely a secret told only by those in the know. Well that and to see frontman Eddie Argos.
Argos was in typical form at Subterranean, which means he was equal parts poet, prophet, and fool. His lyrics are post-modern and playfully Dadaist. His banter with the audience is witty and personal, but somehow he still remains a grandiose showman. Just to make sure he was connecting with the crowd, he waded into its sweaty midst several times, and still other times, he sent the rest of the band to idle while addressing a topic he deemed relevant to the moment. While there weren't any exceptionally long rants (such as the "Emily Kane" treatise presented on the band's first tour), the audience was presented a short guidebook on which musicians should be listened to (Mountain Goats and The Hold Steady) and which ones are utterly full of shite (all the other ones including his own evidently). Brilliant.
After a short encore, the band climbed back up the spiral staircase, the house lights were brought up, and those who were sworn enemies jockeying for position only minutes earlier, now shook their heads in a foggy truce. I left the show with horrible photographs shot from a poor vantage point inside that positional war zone, a few bruises, and an enormous smile on my face. Art Brut hasn't changed a lick. Praise Krishna!